Don't Call It a Comeback - EMusician

Don't Call It a Comeback

Amercilessly unseasonable winter wind rages outside, and it's howling through the concrete-and-steel canyon of skyscrapers on Sixth Avenue with a vengeance.
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Amercilessly unseasonable winter wind rages outside, and it's howling through the concrete-and-steel canyon of skyscrapers on Sixth Avenue with a vengeance. But in the ambient warmth and almost meditative bliss of Stuart Matthewman's Cottonbelly Studios in downtown Manhattan, you'd never even know it. At the main console, he's setting levels so that he can hear a remix that he's just finished for the song “Round and Round” from Sweetback's new album, Stage 2 (Epic/Sony, 2004). The hypnotic strains of lead vocalist Aya wash into the room, but instead of the buoyant deep-house feel of the original track (which, for you music-theory heads, throbs in the “happy” key of C-sharp major), the tempo is cut in half and the pitch modulated down for a much more somber and introspective dub version (in the “sad”-sounding key of A minor). Matthewman turns momentarily from the mixing desk to make his point.

“You know, normally when you have a ballad, it can be pretty easy and natural to go and make a house track out of it,” he says. “But, here, I started with the house track and did it the other way around. I just wanted to try something different and see what happened.”

This spirit of experimentation pervades the overall flow of Stage 2 — the group's first studio release in the eight years since its eponymous debut (Epic/Sony, 1996) succeeded in bringing further attention to the silky after-hours pipes of a young cat named Maxwell (whose own debut, Maxwell's Urban Hang Suite [Sony, 1996], released several months earlier, featured Matthewman as guest producer and musician). Added to that mix were former Groove Theory siren Amel Larrieux and Philly-based female MC Bahamadia, whereupon, right off the bat, Sweetback had set the bar for surrounding itself with great vocalists — not that Sweetback really had anything to prove in that regard. After all, it had been Sade's backing band for four solid albums before the Nigerian-born singer took time off to have her first child.

It's been eight years, but that isn't to say that the core members and co-producers of Sweetback — Matthewman, keyboardist Andrew Hale and bassist Paul Spencer Denman — haven't been busy. Along with their much-touted reunion tour with Sade in support of her comeback album, Lovers Rock (Epic/Sony, 2000), Hale has continued to produce and record while Denman has taken up the reins of guiding his bass-playing son's career. Matthewman, meanwhile, has been banging out a wave of remixes, indie productions and film scores (the Polish Brothers' Twin Falls Idaho and Northfork, as well as an as-yet-unfinished sci-fi flick, among them) under his own name and that of his alter recording ego, Cottonbelly. Matthewman released the Cottonbelly remix compilation X Amounts of Niceness (Wrong) just this year.

When asked about the long respite between Sweetback albums, Matthewman takes it in stride. “I guess it comes down to the reality that we live in different countries,” he says. “I mean, I live in New York. Paul's in L.A. — which is kind of a different country, yeah? [Laughs.] And Andrew lives in London, and we just have other interests. After we finished the tour with Sade, I was getting on to producing some different people, and Andrew was doing the same thing [as well as scoring the Sony video game The Getaway], and Paul was managing his son's punk band. And then one day, we just thought, ‘Maybe it's about time we did something together again.’”

WE AIN'T GOT NO STYLE

The initial plan for Stage 2, as Matthewman describes it, was that there was no plan, except perhaps to avoid being pigeonholed by the finished result. “I love the music, but I think there have just been enough chill-out, trip-hop, groovy, dubby records and so on,” he says. “We just wanted to get more into songs, which is why I went with Chocolate Genius and Aya, because they write such great lyrics.” Chocolate Genius, otherwise known as singer-songwriter Marc Anthony Thompson, has roots that run exceptionally deep in New York's progressive-funk and -soul scenes. And Aya's exquisite voice and poetic lilt evoke the spirits of soul and jazz singers as diverse as Minnie Riperton (on the summery “All My Days With You”) and even Sade herself (on the steamy ballad “Lover”).

Stage 2 opens with “Voodoo Breath,” a dark and brooding personal odyssey from Chocolate Genius that is so steeped in hallucinogenic swamp funk, it might even draw old-school Funkadelic fans to the party. “We were messing around for no reason other than thinking it would be cool to do a track,” Matthewman explains. “I had a drum pattern and a bass line going, and I was flipping through some records when I found this old album from the 1958 World's Fair or something; it was meant to be music of the future, like science-fiction music done with strings. [Actually, that excerpt is from composer Attilio Mineo's “Gayway to Heaven,” commissioned for the 1963 Seattle World's Fair, as Matthewman later clarifies.] I just dropped the needle and it fit exactly — time, tempo and pitch — so we sampled that with some Mellotron strings around it, and then Chocolate Genius just went in and nailed the vocal on the first take.” A close listen will also detect a subtly concealed Maxwell rocking vocal ad-libs as the song tails out.

By way of contrast to the mud-coated groove of “Voodoo Breath,” a surprising pop-rock sensibility streamlines the rough edges of Aya's “Things You'll Never Know.” It's enough to send any self-respecting trip-hop hipster into head-scratching mode — that is, until the chorus kicks in and the song becomes catchy. Matthewman seems to revel in the freedom of the process that brought the song together. “Again, a good deal of the time, we'll have a rough backing track where it's a drum pattern, a bass line and some chords,” he says. “And then the vocalist — in this case, Aya — will come in and sing something, and after that, we'll completely change the backing around her vocal so that you're almost remixing it and making a new track. This song was originally half the speed it is now, but as we were messing around and did it faster, it just worked. The next step was to get rid of the programmed beat by bringing someone in to play live drums, and then Paul brought his son Joe in to play bass. So, gradually, it just became this entirely new thing.”

Matthewman recruited Bruce Smith (formerly of the British avant-punk groups Rip, Rig & Panic and Public Image Ltd.) for the live drum parts on Stage 2 — yet another departure from Sweetback's first outing, which consisted almost entirely of programmed beats. More incongruous is the punk-schooled Smith in the drum chair for “Circles,” another Chocolate Genius vehicle that smacks of Neil Young and Pink Floyd even as it embraces the pristine string sound of Gamble & Huff and other producers of the soul era. “Bruce is kind of a nutcase like the rest of us when it comes to trying new shit,” Matthewman says with admiration. “He's a very straight-ahead drummer, not even remotely R&B, but then I thought it would be good to have somebody who wasn't R&B for this song.”

Like with “Things You'll Never Know,” the metamorphosis that “Circles” underwent was gradual and organic. “It started with a drum loop and bass line, and then I built guitars around it,” Matthewman says. “Once Marc started singing on it, we thought, ‘Oh, man, we've got to give this more dynamics [with live drums].’ We were thinking ahead to what this could sound like onstage, because we've got two singers who were gonna make themselves available to us so we could be a band. And this is what Stage 2 is: It's more like a band.”

OF CUBES, TUBES AND STEMS

While Matthewman and Sweetback surrendered themselves this time to some uncharted methods of writing and recording songs, the raw setup at Cottonbelly Studios has basically remained the same throughout the years, aside from a few refinements. “I've always used Cubase — I even started off on the Atari,” Matthewman says, acknowledging in the same breath that Hale uses Digidesign Pro Tools. In this case, however, there was little conflict because almost all of Stage 2 was tracked at Cottonbelly. (When working with Sade, the two setups do come into play, with Matthewman assuming the bulk of the MIDI and beat-programming duties and Hale handling vocals and live instrumentation. When it comes time to trade files, Matthewman simply samples the Pro Tools sessions for loading into Steinberg Cubase or converts his Cubase tracks to AIFF files for uploading into Pro Tools.)

The key to the analog portion of the signal path at Cottonbelly resides in tubes — specifically, the AKG C 12 microphones and the Drawmer 1960 dual-preamp compressor. “For this record, I just recorded everything through the Drawmer,” Matthewman reveals. “It's got a guitar DI, as well, which I pretty much always use.” He also throws some transistor-based technology into the fray. “I'll run the drums through a Focusrite OctoPre [8-channel mic preamp],” he continues. “I've always got mics set up over the drums, and I like the fat sound we can get with that setup. And another thing that I love is FireworX by TC Electronic. It's just got a lot of cool presets with flanging and weird delays and phasing that are perfect for dub mixing — you know, the stuff that King Tubby and Lee Perry really worked their asses off trying to get with just a 4-track and some effects boxes. Now, you've got these little presets that will do it all for you.” At this, Matthewman laughs almost guiltily.

But even with the profusion of shortcuts that today's audio technology affords, Matthewman still felt compelled to try out some of the more meticulous aspects of the mixing and mastering process. At times, the work became uncomfortable — literally. “It was summer, and we were ready for mixing, and the air conditioning in the studio just stopped working,” Matthewman recalls. “It was so hot, we thought it would be good to get out of here, so we went to work with Bob Brockman [who has mixed or produced Heather Nova, Mercury Rev and Black Uhuru]. We ended up mixing parts of the record using stems — you know, the drums mixed separately, the bass, the strings, the guitars — and at first, I was thinking, ‘Oh, man, this is going to be way too much effort or trouble, and maybe we should just go with stereo mixes for the whole thing.’”

It was during the mastering phase, though, that Matthewman realized that the conversion to audio stems — condensing instrument groups into discrete stereo files for later mixdown — had been a useful move. “There were a couple of tracks where Tom Coyne [from New York's legendary Sterling Sound], who's just an amazing mastering engineer, would notice something like, you know, the backing tracks here are a little midrange-y, but I don't want to mess with the lead vocal,” Matthewman says. “And he would bring up the separate parts and solve the problem.

“We only used stems on a couple of tracks, though, because you can go completely crazy filling up hard drives doing that kind of stuff,” he continues. “That's the first time we've ever used that approach, and we almost don't ever want to tell Sade about it. The next album will take about 10 years to finish if she knows about that!” The jig might be up, but given the time-consuming task of creating stems and Sade's penchant for being exacting and meticulous about how her voice sounds on record — not to mention the many options that this approach creates — it would take that much longer to agree on a final mix.

KEEPING ALL OPTIONS OPEN

The diverse array of musical styles on Stage 2 is testament to Matthewman and Sweetback's unprejudiced approach to music, not to mention their careful avoidance of the tired formulas of major-label culture — something difficult to pull off when signed to Sony and backing one of the most popular singing icons on the planet. And as the session at Cottonbelly draws to a close, almost on cue, the conversation turns suddenly but smoothly to outside topics such as martial arts, science fiction and new forms of music. Matthewman becomes visibly animated when considering the possibilities of a sound that combines elements of the familiar with those of the unknown (or just untried).

As an example, he refers to the music of sci-fi films, in which the score is often composed to emulate the future that the film is addressing. Vangelis' work in Blade Runner can be experienced as a valiant effort, but one that sounds dated today. “In that case, you know, you're only doing the score for a film,” Matthewman reflects. “You're not doing source music necessarily. It's not meant to be coming out of the radio, so it's hard to judge what kind of an impact it will have later. And then you see 2001. Someone [Alex North] did the score for that originally, and then [Stanley] Kubrick just said, ‘Fuck this; I'm just gonna use old classical music.’ It was timeless, and it was perfect. It wasn't electronic, and it wasn't trying to be anything futuristic. I guess my idea might be to use real sounds and then mess them up or get into different kinds of tunings, maybe like Steve Reich's equal temperaments or something — you know, stuff that would sound odd to us now. That might be what's in the future.”

When asked whether he feels that his music has gained a sense of maturity through the years, Matthewman laughs, the spell broken. “Well, I don't know,” he says. “That might be the wrong kind of word. I guess because we're older, we've got more music that we've listened to that's sunken in over the years. If you hear some influences here like Pink Floyd or whatever it is, it's not like we've just started listening to it now because it's trendy. It's the sort of shit my older brother listened to when I was 14, and I probably hated it, but it's stuff that's sunken in and comes out. I mean, I've found that most times when I've said in the past, ‘I hate that kind of music’ — you know, ‘I hate brass bands,’ or ‘I hate country music … I'll never listen to country music. I hate that shit!’ And you know what? I'll end up loving it. So all of the stuff that I hated as a kid may be coming out on this record.”

As for what the crystal ball may hold for future collaborations from Matthewman and Sweetback, assuredly, the outcome will be anything but conventional and, more than likely, something wholly unexpected.

ONE SWEET STUDIO

Access Virus synth
AKG C 12 mic
Arturia Moog Modular V soft synth
Boss Metal Zone fuzz box
Drawmer 1960 dual-preamp compressor
Dunlop Cry Baby wah-wah pedal
Emagic EVP73 electric-piano virtual instrument
Focusrite Platinum OctoPre 8-channel mic preamp
GMedia GForce M-Tron VST instrument
GMedia GForce Oddity soft synth
Lexicon LXP-15 multi-effects unit
Lexicon PCM 42 effects processor
Mackie SRM 450 P.A. speakers and subwoofer
Mackie UAD-1 powered effects card
MOTU 2408 digital audio interface
MOTU MIDI Timepiece interface
Propellerhead Reason 2.5 w/Flat Pack software
Roland JV-880, JV-1080, XP-30 synths
Sony DPS-V77 effects processor
Soundcraft DC2000 console
Spectrasonics Atmosphere soft synth
Steinberg Cubase 5.2 software
Steinberg HALion soft sampler
TC Electronic FireworX effects processor